The Hidden China

Happy Chinese New Year – the year of Rooster!

By Junaid Kamal

While Chinese celebrated their new year (also known as Spring Festival) on 28th January 2017, most of the people outside China remained confused about this celebration. Here, I would like to share my personal experience about Chinese culture, based on my two years stay in China.

Before travelling to China, I was very much excited about three things: climbing the ‘Great Wall of China’, speaking Mandarin Chinese and using chopsticks. On 3rd September 2013, I landed at Beijing International Airport as a foreign student. Although I spent my two years in Beijing, I had the opportunity to visit some other parts of the country as well.

People’s Republic of China (‘Zhongguo’ in Mandarin Chinese) is a single-party state, governed by the Chinese Communist Party. It exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces; 5 autonomous regions (Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang, Guangxi, Ningxia and Tibet); 4 municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing); and 2 self-governing special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau).

In China, you can take part in different festivals throughout the year, such as, Chinese New Year, Lantern festival, Dragon Boat festival, Mid-autumn festival, etc. Particularly, Chinese New Year (the first day of Chinese lunar year) is the most excited one. Those who are settled outside their hometowns or even living abroad, try to get back to their homes just to share the moment with their families. The sky is brightened with fireworks for seven consecutive nights, which is meant to drive-off the ‘evil spirits’, according to the ancient Chinese beliefs. This festival was celebrated on 28th January 2017 as the year of Rooster – one of
the 12 zodiac animals in Chinese lunar calendar.

Interestingly, in China, asking your zodiac sign is a polite way of asking your age. In Chinese philosophy, your zodiac animal describes your personality. Here is the sequence of the 12 zodiac animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. So, the next Chinese New Year is going to be the year of Dog.

China is a beautiful country with spectacular landscapes. I started my journey with ‘conquering’ the Great Wall of China (Mutianyu section), which is a 2-hour drive from the downtown Beijing. The total length of the Great Wall is estimated to be 13,170 miles (21,196 km), according to a survey.

Some other famous attractions in Beijing are: Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Houhai Lake, Bird’s Nest (Olympic Stadium), Salitun Street, Wangfujing Street and Chaoyang Park. Apart from Beijing, I have travelled to Henan province (known for Shaolin Kungfu), Inner Mongolia (the city of Genghis Khan), Shandong (a coastal province in the eastern China), Tianjin (a major port city near Beijing), Urumqi (Xinjiang province in western China).

China is such a big country with many ethnic groups, all of which contribute to the huge variety and cooking styles. Some of my favorite dishes are: beijing kaoya (Beijing roasted duck), jiaozi (dumplings), gongbaojiding (spicy chicken with peanuts), yangrou-chuar (lamb kebab), and mantou (steamed buns).

The use of chopsticks (‘kuaizi’ in Mandarin Chinese) is quite an ingenious way of eating and you need to know some basic chopstick etiquette. For instance, don’t place your chopsticks on your bowl as they appear to be pointing at someone; don’t bang your chopsticks as you are playing a drum; and never dip your chopsticks in the middle of a bowl of rice (it’s related to burning incense at funerals). It took me around 3 months to use chopsticks properly.

When it comes to numerology, Chinese people take it very seriously. A Chinese will prefer buying a car or a house with a lucky number in it, which is believed to bring some good fortune. In China, lucky and unlucky numbers are often determined by their resemblance in pronunciation with another word which  carries a positive connotation. For instance, the number 8 is considered extremely lucky in China – ‘eight’ is pronounced ‘ba’ in Mandarin Chinese, and has a sound close to the sound for the word which means prosperity and wealth. On the other hand, the number 4 (‘si’ in Mandarin Chinese) is considered very unlucky because its sound is almost identical to that for the word ‘death’. Interestingly, most of the highrise buildings lack a 4th floor. By the way, I bought a ‘China Mobile’ SIM card, having multiple 4s in it.

Chinese people are very friendly and welcoming. When a Chinese asks you about your age, marital status and salary, don’t get surprised, because it’s normal in Chinese culture. The way Chinese people exchange their business cards with both hands is admirable.

I found Chinese people extraordinarily punctual. In Chinese culture, arriving early shows respect for the host. I remember while I was travelling from Beijing to Shandong by train, the departure time mentioned on the train ticket was 12:17 P.M. I was surprised to see that the train departed at exact 12:17 P.M. So if you are late by even a minute, you are definitely going to miss the train. Fortunately, I was able to get there on time.

With all the fun, you may experience high levels of air pollution in big cities, like Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou. People wear air pollution masks, especially in winters, when the thick gray smog falls over the cities, as the country burns more coal to power heaters. Further, in mainland China, google, facebook, twitter and youtube are officially blocked, for which you have alternate options available, like baidu, wechat, youku, etc.

To sum up, I would recommend you to explore this part of the world, whenever you get a chance. Undoubtedly, this was one of the best experiences of my life. After spending two years in China, now I can speak Mandarin Chinese, use chopsticks, and of course, I have climbed the Great Wall of China.

The writer has studied economics at Capital University of Economics and Business, Beijing, China and belongs to Pakistan.

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